When he first was elected Idaho secretary of state four years ago, Lawerence Denney was among the state’s most partisan officials, as the former Republican speaker of the House – and the first speaker to be ousted by his own party caucus after a series of controversial moves, including demoting committee chairs who didn’t toe the line and punishing lobbyists who supported his rivals.
Now, after four years as the state’s chief election official, he said, “I think I’ve proven myself to be capable to do the job. … I don’t think I have been partisan at all. I think that we have evenhandedly administered the races.”
Denney, 70, a farmer from Midvale who’s seeking a second four-year term, said he’s come up with a way to handle “the political stuff.”
“I just hand it over to Tim,” he said, referring to longtime Chief Deputy Secretary of State Tim Hurst, whom he kept on from the previous administration. Hurst has been with the office for 16 years, and previously served as the Cassia County administrator for 27 years. “He is seen as nonpartisan,” Denney said. “He does a fantastic job, and is a great resource for the office.”
Denney said he hands off issues such as campaign finance violations and complaints to Hurst.
Denney, who faces Democrat Jill Humble in November, added, “I’m still totally partisan; I believe in the Republican ideals. But there are not that many decisions that come through the office that are partisan decisions.”
Humble, 70, is a registered nurse, mental health counselor and former independent candidate for governor.
“I see the secretary of state’s office as being nonpartisan,” she said. “You’re there to serve everybody – there isn’t a difference.”
She’s calling for reforms she says will improve voter access: Automatic voter registration for any Idahoan who turns 18, and for anyone who moves to Idaho and gets an Idaho driver’s license. She’s also an advocate for voting by mail, like neighboring Oregon and Washington. She also says she wants to protect Idahoans’ private voter information.
Denney is not enthused about those approaches. Firstly, he says all the voter information he turned over to a controversial federal election security commission was public information, anyway. And he said he still supports the idea of sending Idaho voter data to a multistate cross-check system, should one start back up, to ensure people aren’t voting in multiple states.
“I think it’s a useful tool,” he said.
Denney also has reservations about mail-in voting, though Oregon, Washington and Colorado now vote entirely by mail and have consistently higher voter turnout than Idaho. In the 2016 presidential election, Colorado had the nation’s fourth-highest turnout of its voting-eligible population, at 72.1 percent. Oregon ranked eighth, at 68.3 percent; Washington, 12th, at 65.7 percent; and Idaho 28th, at 60.9 percent.
“Their turnout isn’t much higher,” Denney said. He added that he knows Idaho’s county clerks want mail-in voting.
“They’d like to have it because of the work,” he said. “I still have some reservations in my mind because of the security of mail-in ballots. The security has to be 100 percent, and I can’t guarantee that.”
He also opposes automatic voter registration.
“I think there is some responsibility on the voter to want to vote,” Denney said.
Humble, who won the Democratic primary with 74.8 percent of the vote, said she’s knocked on more than 1,000 doors and talked with Idahoans about what they want from their election system.
“I learned this from going door-to-door, how interested people are in having vote by mail,” she said. “Because we’re an aged population, we’re rural, and we have many people who want ease of voting because they work or they have babysitters or transportation issues. Or whatever the situations. And I kept hearing that over and over again.”
Idaho currently allows precinctwide vote by mail in precincts with 125 or fewer registered voters. Registered voters who want to vote absentee by mail can do so, but must reapply every election to get a mailed ballot.
Denney considers his greatest accomplishments as secretary of state to be on the technology side, having implemented online voter registration and currently being in the midst of multimillion-dollar technological upgrades both to business filing systems and Idaho’s election systems. He’s also working with a joint legislative committee on campaign finance reforms, including requiring more frequent and more detailed reporting.
“I think I’ve brought this office into the 21st century with the digital things we’ve accomplished,” he said. “We’re still working on some of the sunshine stuff.”
Humble said she wasn’t familiar with the reforms the legislative panel has been considering. “I do know that we need reform, there’s not a doubt in my mind on that,” she said.
Denney said he’d like to see higher voter turnout in Idaho, but believes only candidates and issues can drive that. “Negativity turns voters off,” he said. “They stay away because they don’t like the whole mess.”
Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.
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